Virtual reality is an incredibly efficient tool for simulating human-machine interactions in a virtual environment. With modern out of the box 6-DOF VR systems from Oculus and HTC, anyone can interact naturally in a virtual world with virtual objects, create engaging learning, and gaming experiences. Virtual reality in CAVEs has been used for at least two decades for engineering design, ergonomic studies and training.
When I look up ergonomic studies using virtual reality in research or business literature, I have found mainly complex implementations using gloves, high-end body tracking, and CAVE systems.
These systems are intimidatingly complex and prohibitively expensive to buy, implement, and maintain for many companies stepping newly into this domain. The alternative of creating physical mockups is not any easier or less expensive. With teams facing the pressure of project deadlines, the lead time to build several iterations of physical mockups unquestionably limits fully achieving ergonomic designs goals. Today’s highly distributed business environments add further complexity to the process. The impact/benefit of collaboration across teams, suppliers and customers to solve problems early in the design process cannot be ignored.
Is there a more efficient and cost effective approach that enables more organizations and industries to take advantage of this powerful technology, especially in light of the recent advances with low cost consumer VR? Can the knowledge and input of the operational maintenance and support teams be captured up front in the design process through realtime collaboration?
I draw upon my experience in the simulation software industry to answer the first question. High fidelity and high accuracy simulation software is used to reliably predict non-linear structural failure or vehicle performance in the presence of unsteady fluid flow. This however comes with a heavy price tag for the software, computational resources, simulation time, and few experts who can use the software. Faster, lower fidelity, simulation tools can be used to cleverly narrow down the possible alternatives quickly. These tools are also more scalable, cost effective and relatively easy to use on low end PCs. Such intelligent combination of using both low and high fidelity tools has resulted in democratization of simulation tools and speed of design processes in industry.
The same principle can be applied to other design processes in the VR space to significantly lower cost and complexity. While very high accuracy VR with gloves and trackers can be used for detailed validations and studies, it is feasible to perform rapid studies using low cost hardware combined with simple, scalable, and cost-effective VR software platforms. Let’s look at what can be done with basic VR systems without the need for additional tracking and gloves hardware.
Reachability, Visibility and Layout Studies. Can a driver, machine operator, or pilot reach the required controls? Does the operator have sufficient visibility for safely operating a machine? If we can rapidly import CAD designs of a vehicle, control panel, or instrument layout for a study into VR, it is feasible with basic controllers, visibility and measurement tools to establish reachability with sufficient accuracy and traceability to make design decisions. In addition if the CAD designs are processed with the required intelligence, ergonomic studies can be conducted on specific groupings and naming of objects (switches on panels) automatically from the CAD data. If the VR software allows easy import and switching of layouts, back to back studies, and comparisons can be rapidly performed to narrow down design choices.
Design assessments for assembly and maintenance. Assessing if technicians can access mechanical components and systems for assembly and maintenance is extremely tedious in a flat screen environment. VR enables a 3D perspective and depth which is crucial to execute such studies in a virtual environment. 3D printed tools or real tools mounted with trackers provide greater fidelity to an assessment. But once again the tradeoff is complexity and limited access that can be more effectively leveraged in later validation and refinement stages of a design. Using CAD models of 3D tools with fast realtime collision can provide a simple and effective method for assessing accessibility in complex machinery and installations. Realistic hand animations triggered by hand controllers have worked well in our customer base. Using standard VR controllers only allows anyone from anywhere globally in the design, manufacturing, training teams to perform an ergonomic assessment. In addition, manikin models can be used efficiently to conduct full body assessments without the need for using body trackers if the VR platform allows configurations or model states and animated sessions to be easily created by anyone in a codeless manner.
Multi-user Collaboration. Ergonomic studies like any other design process involves multiple stakeholders. Bringing them together in a virtual remote collaboration environment can be extremely beneficial to resolve conflicts early in the design process. Defects that propagate to manufacturing and operations can result in very expensive recalls. Making collaboration easy and reliable requires eliminating any unnecessary complexity from the hardware and software platforms. Imagine design engineers working simultaneously in a common virtual workspace with manufacturing engineers, suppliers, and maintenance engineers. A maintenance engineer can show serviceability issues in realtime using VR in a Zoom-like web based workspace to design and manufacturing teams located anywhere in the world.
In conclusion, off-the-shelf VR hardware combined with a software platform that provides fast hands-off conversion of complex CAD, a rich set of engineering tools, global collaboration that is easy to access for anyone enables rapid prediction of human machine interaction at a very low cost. This can have a significant impact on your business bottom line from product quality, time to market and sustainability. As a final word, the feasibility of any virtual prediction approach has to be validated against empirical data to benchmark and establish a baseline for your specific application.